My Latest Trip to Titipu
Last year around this time, I wrote here about the Blue Hill Troupe’s superlative performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s late, seldom-staged operetta "Utopia, Limited" at the Museo del Barrio in New York.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending en famille a matinée of one of G&S’s most popular works (and my personal favorite) "The Mikado" (1885). What a treat!
The theater at the Museo del Barrio is an under-appreciated gem. It opened in 1922 as the Heckscher Theatre, a 600-seat performance space on 5th Avenue at 104th Street. Featuring splendid murals by Willy Pogáni illustrating such children’s classics as Jack and the Beanstalk, Hansel and Gretel, and Cinderella, the theater was originally built to offer free performances for orphans and other poor children.
The space has a long history with the Blue Hill Troupe, whose annual spring performances are devoted to staging Gilbert & Sullivan. (In the autumn, the company does another family comedy: next up, in November, "The Drowsy Chaperone.") The mostly amateur company, whose net proceeds support a wide range of charitable causes (they’ve raised some $4 million to date), began life in 1924 as a summer lark among four families in Maine. (Its first performance, of HMS Pinafore, took place on Alida and Seth Milliken’s yacht in Bluehill.) Within a few years the company had moved to New York. Its first New York productions—if “productions” isn’t too grand a term—were in the hallway of the Milliken’s residence at 74th and Madison (on the site, I regret to say, of the Whitney Museum).
So popular were the performances that the company was soon looking abroad for a proper theater. The Heckscher Theatre was a natural. Their first performance there: "The Mikado" in 1928.
I fell in love with Gilbert & Sullivan directly I encountered their work. I was delighted by Gilbert’s clever, ebullient word-play, sharp but never cynical, and I’ve always thought Sullivan’s genius for lively appropriation and narrative pastiche has been unfairly slighted. To me, the amazing thing is that these sophisticated operettas were among the brightest gems in the diadem of Victorian popular entertainment. Popular, mind you. What the masses snapped up and savored. It’s a far cry from the psychopathological inanities purveyed as popular entertainment by television these days.
But I digress. I have seen, gosh, many performances of "The Mikado." This was easily one of the very best. The BHT is so popular with singers that it supports two separate casts. I saw the “closing cast” yesterday, and it was uniformly superb. Sure, I have a few quibbles, but I am not going to air them because the overall excellence of the production dwarfs them into carping irrelevance. Ko-Ko (Michael Macaione) was brilliant: the best and most inventive rendition of that charming character I’ve witnessed. Ditto Nanki-Poo (Richard Miller), an inveigling, powerful tenor whose acting neatly complements the mellow sumptuousness of his voice. Pooh-Bah (Kevin Murray) was hilarious as the haughty Lord High Everything Else, a sneering swell who traces his ancestry back to a “protoplasmal primordial atomic globule.”
The delectable Sheena Ramirez was smashing as Yum-Yum: a knockout in every respect. I am a great fan of Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh’s film about the making of "The Mikado," but Ramirez far outshines in looks and voice that fetching Yum-Yum. Another of the show’s great triumphs was Cristiane Young as the formidable Katisha: what a presence! And what a voice! When the cowed Ko-Ko, wooing her in order to save himself from a dreadful fate (“something lingering,” mused the Mikado, not quite certain what the law prescribed, but something “humorous” like boiling oil or molten lead)—when, I say, Ko-Ko asks if Katisha thinks she is “sufficiently decayed,” her virtuoso coloratura response (can an alto do coloratura?) brought the house down: “To the matter that you mention/ I have given some attention,/ and I think I am sufficiently decay-ayed,” that final word lasting about thirty seconds and sliding inexorably upward.
The show, in short, is a triumph. And just think: I am writing this on Sunday morning, April 14. You, Dear Reader, may possibly be getting outside your second cup of coffee or your morning tisane about now. If you are reading this, you are at your computer or your iPad. You, lucky thing, need only click here to book a ticket for April 17, 18, 19, or 20. I recommend, however, that you follow the advice of the poet Horace: carpe diem. Act now! We had nearly a full house yesterday afternoon. News travels fast. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the run is sold out. I’d hate to think you missed it. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.